Monday, March 7, 2016

Learning About the Process of Making Art

Fifty years of life experience can help to put certain things into perspective. As I read reports of suburban parents being arrested for letting their child walk home from school alone, I can't help but shake my head in wonder.

When I grew up in New York City, the subway (or a bicycle) gave an adolescent the freedom to roam the city at will. There was no hesitation about cycling down to The Narrows (before the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge was built) to take a ferry from Bay Ridge to the St. George Ferry Terminal and transfer to a Staten Island ferry bound for Battery Park. By the time I was in junior high school, I had been singing in the Brooklyn Museum's Boys Chorus and traveling to Manhattan with a friend to attend Saturday morning lectures at the Hayden Planetarium.

My high school years were spent in a school where approximately 5,000 students were on triple session, with classes scheduled between 8:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. This educational factory was seemingly divided between (mostly Jewish) advanced placement honors students and those destined to go into accounting, mechanical trades, or their family's business.

Brooklyn's newly-completed Midwood High School in 1940

For those growing up in New York, there were no dreams of escaping the loneliness and isolation of a small town in order to escape to the big city. Perhaps that's why, when I see movies about kids in high school today, I feel like I'm watching scenes from an alternate reality.
  • Because my high school gym class had over 300 students, it was easy for those of us who were fat, lazy, or uncoordinated to slowly make our way around the perimeter of the basketball court looking as if we were engrossed in serious conversation while the jocks amused themselves by climbing up and down the ropes.
  • Many of the students who were taking music lessons carefully avoided any kind of physical activity which might injure their hands.
  • Because my father taught biology and general science at the same school I attended, I learned to be wary of potential friends once I discovered that what they were really after were the answers to one of my father's upcoming tests.
  • Since Brooklyn College was right across the street from Midwood High School (and tuition in those days was $50 per semester), there was never any question about where I was headed after graduation. 
Composer John Corigliano introduces his high school music
teacher, Bella Tillis, to his students at Lehman College in 2005

Unlike much of today's high school curricula, the arts were a given back then. Advanced placement classes were divided between math/science and language/arts tracks. There was a girls' chorus, mixed chorus, marching band, and orchestra. The annual Sing! competition (launched in 1947 by Bella Tillis) drew participants from every part of the student body. For the politically motivated, Students for a Democratic Society had a strong appeal.

While there may have been a growing sense of alienation, boredom was rarely an option. Perhaps that's why two new films, focused on contemporary high school students, proved to be such an eye opener for me.
  • Both films were set in small communities where graduating seniors face limited options for the future (one film took place in Tuolumne County, California, the other in Kauai County, Hawaii).
  • Both films used nonprofessional actors (one was a documentary, the other a "fictumentary").
  • Although the Affiliate Artists program (founded in 1965) was a popular and powerful force for arts in the schools for nearly three decades, the budgetary battle to remove arts programs from primary and secondary schools has been a major force in the dumbing down of America's youth. Thankfully, the Arts Education Network run by Americans for the Arts has found new ways of bringing students into contact with working artists.
  • With or without help from Americans for the Arts, both of these films demonstrated the positive impact of having outside artists come into and work with students in small communities.
  • While the students in one film were united around a common goal; the students in the other initially seemed alienated and adrift.
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Shot in and around the tiny town of Sonora, California, The Other Kids has the look and feel of a very intimate documentary. In truth, much of the film was improvised. As filmmaker Chris Brown explains:
“Three years ago, I was passing through the small gold rush town of Sonora, California, near Yosemite National Park. As I was walking up Sonora's Old Western main street (lined with buildings dating to the 1850s), a teenager with a green Mohawk skateboarded past me while texting on her smartphone. At once I was struck by the incongruity of the image: new versus old, urban versus rural, modern versus traditional.  I asked myself what it would be like to grow up there.

Over the next two years, I worked with a small group of local teens to make a film about their lives as they struggled through their last days of high school. I wanted all of the performers in the film to be actual teenagers, rather than actors in their twenties. Shot without a script, The Other Kids is a hybrid of fiction and non-fiction in which our all-student team worked as both cast and crew to learn the craft of filmmaking and explore the most challenging aspects of their lives.”
Poster art for The Other Kids

Brown began by pitching his idea to the town leaders, arts council, social service agencies, school boards and parent groups before holding auditions to find six teens who could anchor his film. His goal was to find students and parents who were willing to deal openly with the struggles in their lives and who were not afraid to climb on board a project whose outcome and duration were completely unpredictable. His six lead characters are:

Isaac Sanchez lives in an abandoned trailer in The Other Kids
  • Isaac Sanchez, a Mexican national abandoned as a child by his family, who works three jobs (landscaping, dishwashing and metalworking), studies hard, and dreams of becoming a diplomat. Despite constant assurances during phone conversations with his mother that he is doing fine, Isaac is living alone in an abandoned trailer and barely keeping his head above water. The fact that he is living in the shadows (his guest visa expired two years ago) and barely able to support himself with manual labor is something he does not dare reveal to his closest friends.
  • Sienna Lampi, Isaac’s girlfriend whose parents (Jim and Cinnamon) are in the midst of an ugly divorce. A young woman who enjoys working as a stable hand and riding horses, Sienna is torn between her mother’s demands on her time, her love for her father, and her need to keep her relationship with Isaac hidden from her parents.
Joe McGee meets with a military recruiter in The Other Kids
  • Joe McGee, an affable jock, is the kind of handsome young man who feels that his only option is to follow in his father's footsteps and enlist in the military. The local military recruiter (Mike Crich) has no trouble reeling him in by dangling the benefit of a paid college education in front of him.
  • Kai Kellerman, an academically gifted nerd with limited social skills and low self esteem. As Joe’s closest friend. Kai fears being left alone if Joe joins the military. His depressive symptoms include lashing out at his parents (Jody and George) and cutting his arms with a razor.
Natasha Cricket Lombardi is a new arrival in town who doubts
she will be able to make any friends in The Other Kids
  • Natasha Cricket Lombardi, a newly-arrived pierced punk who doubts that she’ll make any new friends in Sonora. Although her single mother (Michele Maine) is willing to help Cricket dye her hair blue, the possibility of becoming homeless after finishing school represents an opportunity for freedom and independence from a world she scorns.
  • Abby Stewart, a smart, anti-social tomboy who likes to read almost as much as she likes skeet shooting. As Abby keeps noticing Cricket around town (and makes the first move to start a friendship), one can't help but wonder if the two women share a sexual attraction or are merely bonding as two bored, cynical teens who feel like outsiders.
What soon becomes evident is that none of these students can rely on the safety net that might be expected from a fully functioning nuclear family. While Joe McGee might earn a chance to see the world by enlisting (and maybe even live to tell about it), the others clearly lack mentoring. As McGee explains, "There's a bunch of kids that know what they're doing, that have this all planned out because their parents have been with them all the way. And then there's the kids that really don't know what they're going to do." Kai Kellerman sees the film as "a brutal take on the reality of the crap that people have to deal with during their senior year at high school."

As with Brown's previous film (Fanny, Annie, and Danny) there is a rawness to the dialogue and a much greater sense of authenticity than one finds in most films about teenagers. Because The Other Kids was basically unscripted, the shooting process provoked some fairly intense moments of emotional discovery for the cast and crew (as well as their families, friends, employers and teachers). Here's the trailer:

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Tadashi Nakamura's hour-long documentary, Mele Murals, deserves high praise for demonstrating how outside artists can come into a community, identify, and help to create a culturally relevant project that serves to bring the community closer together while empowering students to learn specific artistic techniques that will help them understand the process of making art.

Poster art for Mele Murals

A mele is a song, chant, or poem written in the Hawaiian language. Mele Murals focuses on the work done by two Hawaiian artists -- Estria Miyashiro (aka Estria) and John Hina (aka Prime) -- with a group of Native Hawaiian students living in the rural community of Waimea.

Not only do these students speak fluent Hawaiian, part of their curriculum includes studying Hawaiian culture. For some people, it might seem like a stretch to imagine graffiti artists inspiring students to think of graffiti as an art form that goes way beyond tagging a space with one's name or symbol. But Mele Murals does a splendid job of showing what can happen when public art is based on Native Hawaiian traditions.

As they work together, the students create a mural addressing the impact of environmental change and encroaching modernization on their native culture.  In his filmmaker's statement, Nakamura writes:
"I first met ʻŌiwi TV's Keoni Lee and Nāʻālehu Anthony while working on my previous film, Jake Shimabukuro: Life on Four Strings (a Pacific Islanders in Communications co-production). ʻŌiwi TV handled all the production on Oʻahu for that project and we instantly clicked. After the success of Life on Four Strings, we could not wait to work together again."

Mele Murals demonstrates the transformative nature of a public art project on a small community. Both Estria and Prime learn from one of the community elders how an icon from Hawaiian mythology was misunderstood and misrepresented in a previous mural. Much to their surprise, the two visiting artists (Estria is half Japanese and half Hawaiian) rediscover their own identities and responsibilities as Hawaiian artists.  Here's the trailer:

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